2013年11月4日月曜日

English Only! Are you sure?



English Only! Are you sure? 

‘English only, please! You must speak English. No Japanese.’

They say that this strict policy is good for the students. Forcing students to ignore their native language helps them. The students’ their learning potential is maximized and…HOLD ON! Wait just a minute! Just a moment, please!
Is it really bad to use Japanese when you are learning? Or, is it just part of a very successful promotion campaign used by many schools and educational institutions? The answer is a little of both. Let’s take a closer look at this issue and see if we can get a better understanding so we can make our own decision.

Point!  Japanese people need an only English learning environment because they are good at writing but not speaking.

If we look at the issue from a cultural point of view it is perhaps easy to understand why this policy has become so popular. It is a common for many Japanese people to have a stronger understanding of written English. Such people cannot confidently and smoothly express themselves when speaking in English. We can understand this because Japan is a largely mono-lingual society and this means that there are very few chances to speak English. Also, Japanese culture tends to look negatively upon making mistakes, so it is not surprising that Japanese learners of English want to focus on what they do better, writing. 

So, ‘English Only’ in classrooms, right?

Well, yes, it is very beneficial to get as much speaking and listening practice in the classroom as possible. Students can get very valuable practice and confidence by speaking English in a ‘safe’ environment where mistakes are OK. But does that mean we have to avoid using Japanese all the time? Will using some Japanese damage the students’ learning potential? Not exactly. You see, using English only comes with some risk, too. Let me explain.

The human brain is an incredible, and yet, very predictable organ. When we are young our brain is like a new computer. Its super fast, has a huge memory, gigabytes of ram, and makes an Intel microchip seem like a sleepy snail. Also, the young mind has no patterns, it’s not pre-programmed or hardwired. You can ask it to do pretty much anything and the young brain will do it. Unfortunately, the adult brain is not the same. 

An adult’s brain is like your old computer. You like it because you know where everything is. You know all the files and what are in them. You’ve got templates everywhere, and you’ve created desktop shortcuts, copies and backups for everything. The computer’s performance is not as fast as it used to be, and the memory is nearly full, but you know it so well that you could close your eyes and still use it. It’s like an old shoe; it fits you perfectly. 

Can you see where I’m going with this? Which kind of brain do you think would react better to a flood, an overflow of new information, like being exposed to a foreign language non-stop for an hour? You guessed it, the young brain. 

An adult brain is preprogrammed from years and years of use and when we ask it to behave and react in a strange way, it will try its very best to reject the new way and stick with what is old and comfortable. Sure, after time, the brain will slowly force itself to change, but only with a very very good reason. Learning English as a hobby for easier travel, or because the company requires us to study, are often not strong enough reasons for the brain to give up its old habits. So, when you enter a language classroom as an adult, all the information that you receive is being processed by your very annoyed brain. It wants to keep its old habits and your brain will try to fit all of the new information into the files and templates it has already created, even if the old file and new information don’t really match completely. 

Have I lost you? Are you still following me? Well, maybe this example will help. Student A goes to a lesson and today’s topic is ‘Describing People’ the student hears the teacher say the phrase, ‘Tom is very smart. He goes to a very good university.’ Well, Student A’s brain already has a file for that word スマート, meaning ‘thin’. Sure, the example from the teacher is quite good; the teacher is trying to make students guess the meaning with the hint about Tom going to a good university. But has Student A processed the information correctly.

Well, unfortunately, Student A’s brain locked on to the familiar, to what it knew already. ‘Smart, yes,’ the brain says, ‘I have a file for that. I know the meaning. Next word please.’ Now, with enough time and experience we can force our brain to pause and carefully process information, but very often that is not possible. We may only study English, once a week, for 50 minutes, and our teacher only has 50 minutes to open our brains and confirm that the information has been processed and stored correctly. And what is the risk? Well, if the information is stored incorrectly, and we don’t discover the error, the danger is that that error will become locked in the file and will never be able to be deleted. 

Remember, Japan is a mono-lingual environment and there are very few chances to discover the error outside of the classroom, unless you are using English every day. The only time when the error can be found is at that moment, in the classroom with the teacher. It would be much simpler if we take some simple risk management and use Student A’s first language to confirm that the word has been stored in the right file. Obviously, the example I used with the word ‘smart’, is very simple. I hear you say, the teacher could easily confirm the meaning with the student in English! Well, maybe: 

Teacher: ‘Let’s think of some smart people. Well, there is Albert Einstein and Steve Jobs. They were very smart.’ 

Student A’s brain: Yes, those people were thin I guess.

Teacher: Student A, who do you think is smart?

Student A’s brain: I guess the teacher likes thin famous scientists and inventors. 
Student A: I think Thomas Edison was smart.
              
Teacher: That’s a great example.

Ok, so maybe my example probably would not happen; it is too simple. However, the risk is there, especially for much more complicated language and grammar. And yet this risk could be minimized with one simple step:

Teacher: Good example, Student A. So what do you think smart means in Japanese?

Student A: Hosoi 細い.

Teacher: Ah, Ok. I think we need to review the meaning in English again. Smart has a different meaning in English.  

Just remember this. The adult brain likes what is familiar and it will try very very hard to fit new information into what it already knows, especially when it is not under pressure to change. 

So, I finish my post with these questions and answers:

Q. Do Japanese speakers need more chances to communicate in English?
A. Absolutely

Q. Can translation be used responsibly as a confirmation to tool help support an adult student’s learning?
A. Absolutely.

Q. Why are schools telling us that using Japanese in class is bad?
A. I don’t know. 



講師の紹介:Nick
ステラビジネス&マネージメントスクールで、毎週月曜19:00〜の「Get Real! Get Native!」を担当しています。ケンブリッジ大学の英語教育の修士号を取得しており、9年間日本の大手企業や大学で講師及び教育コンサルタントとして活躍してきました。リアルなコミュニケーション能力を高める教材の作成および指導を得意分野とし、英語に苦手意識のある方が自信を持って英語で話し、海外でも活躍できるようサポートします。

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